Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry

Review by Sandra Sanchez

The Kitchen Daughter
byJael McHenry
Gallery Books
ISBN#978-1-4391-9169-9

Promotional materials say that the central question of this novel is “what does it mean to be normal?” As someone who doesn’t have a clue what “normal” means I was pleased that the author seeks to define “normal” in a manner that includes all kinds of people. The primary character, Ginny Selvaggio, takes a little getting used to but she grows on you.
The premise is that she is afflicted with a “syndrome” known as Aspergers but when asked by others what she “has” she responds : “A Personality.” Go Ginny.

The book deals with how people, namely Ginny, her sister Amanda, family friend Gert and Gert’s son Daniel deal with the untimely deaths of loved ones. For Ginny coping means cooking.  Ginny loves to cook. She likes the structure of recipes and has an obsessive compulsive’s attention to minute details that help her identify and savor every taste combined within them. The other thing that begins to happen in the kitchen after her parents are killed in a car crash is the appearance of ghosts. When Ginny follows the recipes left by dead people, mother, grandmother, an unknown woman  named Evangeline, and follows them perfectly, the smells of the foods bring forth the ghosts, briefly and apparently only once, so as she figures out how this works she realizes she needs to  have her questions ready.  No small anxiety there!

Ginny also seeks recipes for “being normal” in a book she calls “the normal book” with clippings from newspaper advice columnists and she checks it from time to time as a guide to how best to assess her own behavior. She also does research online and in her parents’ library where she sometimes goes to escape interpersonal encounters she knows she cannot handle.  In a book titled: An Anthropologist on Mars which she discovers is a collection of essays about people damaged in various ways, she reads an essay by a woman who has invented for herself a hugging machine, something to crawl into to feel loved. Ginny is jealous, averse to touch, she nonetheless needs it. To feel loved, to calm down, she frequently goes into her parents closet to feel surrounded by their clothing. So, yes, Ginny suffers but she also has a get real sense of humor. She looks up a definition of Aspergers on an online site  which lists various symptoms including this one:
A tendency to obsess on particular topics that may not be of interest to others,  she is reminded of  “everyone I have ever met” and remembers a boy in kindergarten who always talked about caterpillars, a girl in 4th grade obsessed with butterflies and the girl in college who only talked about beer and sex.

Eventually Gert, A Romanian Jewess from Cuba  who came to Philadelphia where she met Ginny’s mother,  manages to get Ginny out of the closet and out of the house to help her cook at the Jewish Temple for families who are in mourning. So cooking does indeed become the way she connects to, instead of escaping from, other people.

This book could be labeled “heartbreaking” just as Ginny could be labeled “damaged” but in truth the book was also uplifting with a realistic blend of sad and happy endings, and Ginny often made me smile. She definitely has “personality.”

2 comments:

  1. Nanci, this sounds like my kind of book. I have no idea what normal is either. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Thanks for sharing Joylene!

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